Archive for August, 2010

Funk Prelude by Funktion

Groove scientists Funktion

Kalamazoo funk maestros Funktion have dropped an impressive debut CD that is as well crafted as it is enjoyable. The band is known for their high energy live shows and slamming covers of songs by James Brown, Kool and the Gang, Parliament, and others. Funk Prelude ups the ante and marks a major step forward in the band’s evolution. The debut is a refined studio recording of surprisingly strong original material. On it we hear a maturing group with a rootsy funk sound that is really starting to gel. Funktion has harnessed their vibrant live mojo to produce an eclectic batch of solid tunes that grow on the listener.

This band does not fake the funk. One can hear the classic elements of great funk music here. Tight syncopated rhythms, playful upbeat grooves, soulful vocals, jazzy overtones, sophisticated arrangements, expressive solos, and contagious horn parts are all here. As the dust settles and history weighs in, Funk music will no doubt be seen as the highly innovative, enjoyable, and important artistic achievements that it is. This band is definitely doing their part to keep this under appreciated art form alive. They are paying homage to the form and its roots while forging their own unique sound. In doing so Funktion is blazing a fast path to join the ranks of contemporary funk artists like Galactic, the Greyboy All Stars, Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, and the parade of talent on the Daptone label.

Funk Prelude is a solid debut from one of the most impressive live acts in the region. Having said that, the band has a ways to go to ascend to the level of the classic funk masters. Funk greats like Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, and James Brown had a socially conscious sophistication to much of their best work that seems to be somewhat lacking on the dancing and romancing tunes found here. Still Funktion nails the fun factor, and turning out a party has always been the foundation of funk. This is a tight knit group of talented musicians that have been working very, very hard to take their music to the next level. They have succeeded strongly here and the future is wide open with possibilities. Funk Prelude shows that Funktion is more than just a funk cover band. They are original artists applying tasty musicianship and stellar chemistry to unique sounding music that is genuinely funky. Its a shame there are not more bands around like them.

Zen and the Art of Guitar: Up and coming guitar ninjas discuss their craft

Marcus Robinson laying it down.

I spoke with several talented local guitarists about their passion. Each player interviewed has a unique and evolved approach to the instrument. The interviews shed a fascinating light on guitar artistry. Guitarists interviewed were Kyle Paulk of funkateers Soul Funktion, Adam McCray of jam rockers Fillmore’s Ladder, Neil Carmichael of prog pyros Escherbach, Marcus Robinson of the red hot neo fusion band Gun Metal Black, and Justin Ross of jazzy tunesmiths Half Pint Jones.

What does it mean to be a good guitarist?

Kyle: “I don’t want to see the guy who is school taught and can play every trick, I like the guys who go for it and rip it right out of their gut. I am not interested in scales or practicing patterns, I am interested in stuff with a raw human feel, where every time you hear someone you know its them. I work on my sound and try to sound like me”.

Neil: “A good guitar player is aware of space and time and the moods of the other players. Know where to put the notes to make them effective. Time stretches depending on what you play. Phrasing and tone are also critical…Try to convey emotion”.

Marcus: “Players need to be self-expressed. I’ll take a guy who knows one scale but somehow slips into the music and reveals himself. Chops are secondary”.

Justin: “Guitar players should learn not just from guitar players but also from trumpet players, sax players, and other instruments”.

What mistakes do you see inexperienced players make?

Adam: “Hurrying”.

Kyle: “A lot know the notes but they don’t have feel”.

Marcus: “Too many want to sound like somebody else. Eric Clapton became Eric Clapton after he stopped trying to be Robert Johnson”.

What is the most important thing you have learned as a guitar player?

Justin: “How much I have yet to figure out. Play within your abilities at the moment. You have to be flexible. You have to learn all the rules but ultimately you learn there are exceptions to them”.

Neil: “Don’t overplay. Some guitarists can play really fast but are not able to convey emotion”.

Kyle: “I gave up practicing tricks. I try to play stuff with the least amount of notes.

Adam: I used to not know how to tune myself before I played. Now I like to grab time to myself and meditate. I’ve outgrown a lot of the party aspects. I am more centered now. The party aspect comes in the music”.

Marcus: “Music is about life. You don’t have to have it all made pretty and wrapped perfect, but it has to be real. That’s the way I play and the way I try to live life”.

Is there anything you have learned not to do as a guitarist?

Kyle: “Don’t play too loud. Its offensive”.

Justin: “Don’t overplay, sometimes silence is just as important as the next note you’re gonna play. Lots of people, including pros, get caught up in trying to play faster but not necessarily in trying to make better music. What separates BB King from 1000’s of other guitarists is that he found his voice”.

Marcus: “You gotta work on your chops but once its time to perform you gotta leave that behind and be in the music”.

Adam: “I learned to not put my head in the turtle shell. Play loud and unapologetically with no fear. Even if you mess up you may gain some respect, it’s like throwing the first punch in a jail cell”.

Do you have a philosophy of the instrument?

Marcus: “Treat it like a lover”.

Justin: “If you think you have it figured out then you aren’t looking hard enough. Keep looking, stay hungry, and stay curious”.

What is your philosophy of music?

Neil: “I like switching keys and modes and chord voiceings, and taking all those ideas and placing them in time and space in ways that are interesting and unique”.

Marcus: “Music is inherent in the universe. The creation myth is God spoke, so music created the whole universe. As I play I am trying to find that primordial sound in me, and reenter that original creation space and find what is there inside me”.

Do you have an approach to playing with other people?

Justin: “Listen, it’s the most important thing. Don’t step on anyone’s toes”.

Marcus: “It requires a real ability to let people into your heart and sacred musical space and you do that through listening. I want to feel what they are feeling through the music, resonate with it, and then have a dialog about it”.

Adam: “What I want is a meaningful connection with the people I am playing music with. Try and “out-honest” your friends, and they will be honest with you”.

Kyle: “We play funk and it requires a lot of feel and tightness. Really I’m a part of the sum of the whole. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re too loud and playing over the top of the band it’s gonna suck”.

Neil: “We aim for a cohesive energy and sound. Its not a competition, you don’t want to be on top of the music but right inside of it”.

Is there any advice you have for beginning guitarists?

Marcus: “Play what you love and make up as much new stuff as you can”.

Justin: “Find the styles that move you, study the masters, and develop your own unique voice. Stick with it until you get over the learning curve. Don’t stress out, and take your time. Practice patterns until you don’t think about it anymore”.

Kyle: “Band experience is a must. Also don’t pigeonhole yourself into liking one thing. Don’t block out good music you havn’t heard because you think your thing is all that matters. The more you get into the more you realize there is so much more to get into. The more you learn the more you realize you need to learn”.

Neil: “Practice, practice, practice. Put down the guitar hero and pick up the guitar”.

Adam: “The more time you spend doing nothing with the guitar the more you may actually learn to use it. Everything you do should have a guitar with it”.

World Class Music Festival road trips

Just another day at the DEMF...

One of the best things about living in Michiana is our proximity to a plethora of great music festivals. In fact we are short road trips away from some of the most unique musical happenings in the country. Sure there are the well-known hits like the Jazz festivals in Chicago and Detroit, and of course the Chicago Blues Festival. For traditionalists wanting to watch the greats at work, they are outstanding. Music lovers with more eclectic musical tastes have it just as good however. There are several lesser known nearby music festival gems worth seeking out.

Milwaukee’s Summerfest happens June 25th to July 5th. The largest music festival in the world, it is less than 4 hours away on the beautiful Milwaukee lakefront. Summerfest has been the crown jewel of Milwaukee’s countless annual lake front festivals for years. For 11 days straight on 11 stages you can check out 700 bands of every conceivable variety. The sound is excellent, the stages top notch, and the line up has something for everyone. I love Summerfest for its blend of big name arena performers, excellent roots musicians, up and coming new acts, and classic crowd pleasers. There is plenty of good food, arts and crafts vendors, wonderful play areas for the kids, and more beer than should be legal. Milwaukee itself is one of our most underrated cities and is full of great stuff to do. City highlights include the Public Museum, the Discovery Center, the Art Museum, Brewers games, the Mitchell Park Domes, and plenty of hip neighborhoods to explore.

Chicago’s African Festival of the Arts is one of the best-kept festival secrets in America. Each Labor Day weekend participants soak up the African spirit in an amazing variety of creative manifestations. Various cultures of the African Diaspora are well represented here. Jamaican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, and Creole food, music, art, and dance happen alongside rich African and African American creative expressions. It is an extended family reunion of sorts and one of the biggest and best organized block parties on Chicago’s vibrant South side. Festival organizers book a range of acts as varied as they are inspiring. Three distinct stages host diverse African descended musical forms, including big band jazz, afro beat, Brazilian, Chicago blues, old school funk, gospel, classic hip hop, reggae, zydeco, cuban jazz, soul, and Puerto Rican salsa. The massive and amazing drum village drum jams are worth the price of admission alone. With an affordable price and relaxed atmosphere, the hospitality and warmth of Africa permeate this event.

A new addition to the Midwest festival scene, the Rothbury Festival in Rothbury, MI made a huge splash with 50,000 music lovers last Fourth of July weekend. Featuring a spectacular natural location, weekend camping, great food, and a huge variety of jamming music, the first year Rothbury Festival cemented its place as one of the best new outdoor music festivals around. While somewhat targeted at the jam band hippy scene, Rothbury transcended the usual clichés with a diverse range of rock, reggae, hip-hop, and electronic acts. It was as if someone had remixed a reggae festival, a dead show, the Burning Man Festival, an environmental conference, and an outdoor underground dance party. The visual effects production was top notch and the good vibes were flowing all weekend. Rothbury is more than entertainment though. With a plethora of innovative and sustainable environmental practices and workshops, Rothbury broke new ground in the greening of festivals.

Danceaholics seeking the ultimate party fix can find it Memorial Day weekend at the massive Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF). In its 10th year, DEMF continues to be a living odyssey into the past, present, and future of electronic dance culture. Each year people from around the world travel to the birthplace of Techno music to see the originators, innovators, and elevators of house, techno, hip hop, Dub, nu soul, future jazz, and that unique Detroit concoction, booty music. Those who think electronic dance music has no soul have not been to the block party like atmosphere of DEMF. The Detroit dance culture is as influenced by funk, soul, Gospel, and jazz as it is by Kraftwerk and the depth and dimension of the local scene proves it. At the same time the festival features the best international acts of the genre as well. The after parties are just as fun as the fest and the people watching is unbeatable. Detroit is filled with incredible people who have persevered through the toughest of times. The unstoppable creative work ethic, love of music, and spirit of community there is unmistakable.

Three Oaks Michigan: The small town that dreams big

Ain't no party like a Three Oaks party...

The creative spirit is alive and well in the thriving community of Three Oaks, MI. You might be surprised to discover just how alive, if its been a while since you have been there. Since the mid 90’s, the village has seen the establishment of an art house cinema, a top-notch venue for music and stage performance, a strikingly eclectic independent radio station, several thriving art galleries, a summer music in the park series, various outdoor art festivals, a monthly art walk, an annual circus nouveau side show, a non profit arts funding organization, and some truly unique antique shops. You can also find a yoga studio, a poet laureate, a farmers market, a used bookstore, and several quality cafes. Not bad for a small village with a population less than 2000. So how did it all happen in such an unlikely place? The answer is people stepping up, pooling resources, contributing talents, and patiently collaborating to have a larger impact on their community.

“There are a lot of creative people that contribute to make it all happen,” says Jon Vickers of the Vickers Theater, a beautifully restored turn of the century film house. He adds, “It’s really about the whole community coming together and contributing. I look at this as opportunity. We all have a chance to help create opportunities for others but also to enjoy them for ourselves”.

“Everyone is pretty dedicated and pitches in to make fun things happen,” says Kim Pruitt. Pruitt is a prime example of a local resident who contributes to a variety of creative projects. She is an artist, helps run WRHC radio, programmed the current Music in the Park series, and sits on the board of directors of the Harbor Arts non profit arts organization. She adds, “Because of the community feel and the wide variety of talents that we have living here, we end up collaborating on a lot of different projects together. Everything happens very organically so you feel you have a part in creating it”.

The Three Oaks arts movement has played an important cultural role as the town has morphed into a dynamic mix of big city second homeowners, fun loving tourists, long-term residents, and an ongoing influx of new people. “There is such diversity here, we have both liberals and conservatives, and can’t be pegged as one thing,” says Pruitt. “Arts and Culture bring people together though and are languages that can reach all the different communities that make up Three Oaks”. She continues, “One great thing about the WRHC radio station for example, is that it has created community where there wasn’t any and people who wouldn’t know each other or come into contact now have this great medium for networking and building relationships. After being four years on the air people look to us as a resource to send press releases and find out information about local happenings.” Vickers ads, “the whole idea of the station was to create an alternative form of media to debate issues and stimulate discussion”.

A deep appreciation of the important cultural functions of the arts seems to be both a common thread linking Three Oak’s cultural creatives as well as an expanding ethos in the town itself. “Now with Harbor Arts, Music in the Park, WRHC, and the Acorn and VickersTheaters, a structure is here to encourage artists that this is a good place to be where they can try new things” says Vickers. He continues, “For the size of our town we probably have per capita more unique things happening in the arts than anywhere in the country. I feel strongly about that. I love the fact there are interesting things to do, that we have music in the air on summer nights, and being able to turn on the radio and hear things I would never be able to hear on commercial radio”. He summarizes the spirit of the Three Oaks arts movement by saying “I like that in a small town, it is so easy to participate and you have the opportunity to make a big difference”.

The best of Three Oaks:

Film: Cinema buffs will enjoy the foreign, independent, and off beat flavor of the beautiful Vickers Theater.

Theater and music:

The Acorn Theater offers music lovers and fans of stage performance a truly beautiful place to see a wide variety of shows. There is also an open mic on Tuesday evenings and video lounge on Thursdays.


Three Oaks Art Galleries include Gallery H, Blue, and Studio B. There are also art showings at The Vickers Theater and in the Wine Shop at the Acorn. Galleries and other businesses stay open late during the summer for Art Walks that happen on third Saturdays from 5PM to 9PM.

WRHC Radio: Boasting a roster of 45 DJ’s, countless original shows, and a volunteer army, WRHC is an astonishingly eclectic source of music, news, and information. Original shows run the gambit from comedy, classical, talk, rare groove, news, jazz, experimental, spoken word, rock, bluegrass, alternative, oldies, and more. Listeners outside broadcast range can stream WRHC online at

Harbor Arts: Three Oaks only 501(C)(3) arts funding organization, Harbor Arts has sponsored a wide variety of local arts festivals including Opera at the Acorn, Shakespeare in the Park, The Festival of Lights, The Sounds of Silents Film Festival which combined live music with silent film, Commit Art, and Music in the Park. It is also the parent organization responsible for creating WRHC.

Music in the Park: From June 13th to September 5th there is free music in Dewey Cannon Park in downtown Three Oaks on Saturday nights. Check the Harbor Arts web site for scheduled performers.

Antiquing: Antique enthusiasts will find lots to love in Three Oaks. Eclectic shops like Ipso Facto, Springdale, and Opulence Antiques are destinations unto themselves.

“Storyline” By Mike Struwin

Mike Struwin, a songwriter to watch.

Every so often I come across a CD with a unique sound built out of layer upon layer of lovingly crafted sonic nuance. The impressive “Storyline” by talented singer-songwriter Mike Struwin is just such a CD. No newbie to the music game, Struwin released his first CD at age 17. Since then he has released 7 albums, performed in several bands, and learned and lived in such musical hot spots as Portland, OR and Kalamazoo, MI. “Storyline” reflects the experiences of a well lived musical life and combines them with the passion and enthusiasm of a young artist rapidly coming into his own.

There is a unique artistic vision on this CD that is apparent in the way these songs were constructed. The songs on “Storyline” cover a lot of territory, both musically and lyrically. Songs of love, life, loss, and letting go are all intertwined into unique musical paintings that draw from roots, folk, alt country, and rock. A stable of talented musicians contributed a wide range of instrumental flavors to the rich tapestry of this album. Lap steel, horns, organ, piano, percussion, harmonica, and mandolin accompany Struwin’s vocals and guitar playing. The lush instrumentation not only serves the music but also takes it to another level completely. The exceptional production from Struwin, Lee Howard, Daniel Fretto, and Demetrius Keller really shines here. They have brought these songs to life in a way that reminded me of some of the more musically rich productions of John Mellencamp, Paul Westerberg, or Nick Drake. Struwin has a unique voice and doesn’t particularly sound like any of these artists, but the ability he shares with them to merge song crafting, musical collaboration, and the possibilities of the recording studio is a rare gift worthy of high praise.

This album is likely to have resonance with anyone who has spent quality time in South West Michigan. Lake Michigan, the Dunes, and even Kalamazoo are all celebrated here. It was nice to hear so many experiences I could relate to put into song form. At times the local focus feels almost provincial, yet this is a big part of the albums charm for those who have been there. This is not a perfect album. Some of the narratives meander at times but there are plenty of well-written songs with meaningful lyrics to make up for it. In the end it was really nice to hear a genuine “recording artist” make an album that really works as an album. In a world with a demographic driven corporate owned music industry, it is harder to find them these days. Struwin has really stepped out from the crowd on “Storyline”. With this album he has proved he is a gifted songwriter with a unique artistic vision and a ton of promise.

Gun Metal Black

Gun Metal Black Cooks. Every so often a band comes along that serves up their own piping hot original recipe on a silver shiny platter. Fresh quality ingredients you know and love are put to new creative uses and simmered together in tasty ways you had not thought of. Gun Metal Black (GMB for short) is just such a band. Part rock, part jazz, part funk, and all jam, GMB is a blistering fusion of sound and styles for the new millennium.

GMB is a band with stellar musicianship and wicked chops. They don’t hide behind the usual clichés, instead they circumnavigate them all together. They take improvisation to new horizons and always keep it live. Just when you think you have them pegged, they hit you from a different angle. Like the smaller transformers that join together to make the giant menacing robot Devastator, this band is more than the transforming sum of its parts. Each member brings a diabolical tool kit to the table to help craft a one of a kind collective synergy. Together they build worlds of unexplored sound, with each member upping the ante and stepping out front when the time is right.

Guitarist Marcus Robinson is a soulful brother with deep roots in a range of musical styles. He has played in and out of more boxes than a cat in a box factory. He brings it all out of the guitar-Wailing leads, ambient textures, subtle grooves, jazzy chords, and scorching pedal work. Drummer Skeeto Valedez is like a Mack truck of rhythm roaring down the super groove highway. There is no stopping this well engineered meter machine. Bassist Peter Chwazik has a flow and groove that keeps the band’s wild improvisations sounding tight and clean. He can push, he can pull, but most of all he can lay it all down and hold it together. Keyboardist Brandon Chase is like an impressionist painter adding countless colors to an ever-morphing soundscape. He effortlessly opens up new harmonic dimensions weaving rich webs of sound with astonishing technique.

To see GMB is to see a sonic meltdown where the energy of rock, the freedom of jazz, the creativity of jam, and the soulfulness of funk are forged into a new unbreakable alloy. This is a band of fearless musical adventurers who take listeners for a wild and fun ride with each and every show. In a world with so many cookie cutter bands, Gun Metal Black offers listeners a refreshing musical experience that is as stratospheric as it is down to Earth. Check this red-hot force of nature out for yourself and see just how many ways a band can rock when they throw away all the rules.

Elkhart brings the swing with the 2010 Jazz and Blues festival

A warm summer night at the Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Music lovers attending the 2010 Elkhart Jazz and Blues festival can expect a truly unique musical experience. Since 1988 the annual festival has brought a wide range of musical styles, small town accessibility, and a summer festival environment together in a way that could only happen in Elkhart. The festival, which is held June 25-26th, will feature six stages and host more than 100 performers who will keep things jumping. Audiences experience jazz and blues up close and personal in a variety of laid back and intimate settings. Musical offerings include big band, ragtime, swing, vocal, latin, straight ahead, and smooth jazz, as well as Chicago style blues. Vintage and contemporary sounds bubble up from a street festival atmosphere that includes food and educational exhibits on musical innovations and regional history. It all happens in the charming hassle free environs of downtown Elkhart. “At larger festivals there is no way you can get near the stage, let alone mingle with the performers” says Steve Gruber of Downtown Elkhart, which produces the Festival. “Here you can do both” he says enthusiastically.

Long known as the band instrument capital of the world, Elkhart takes pride in both this high profile event and the city’s contributions to music history. “At one point in time, music instrument manufacturers employed more of the citizens here than any other industry” says Gruber. He adds, “Some of the best expressions of jazz music were produced on instruments made in Elkhart, a lot of the artists know this and love coming here. There is a lot of history here, a lot of innovations happened here, and a lot of skilled musicians revere this as a kind of holy land of band instruments”. He adds, “Jazz is a true American art form and should really be appreciated as such. It was the most innovative form of music on this continent and influenced music all over the world. It was the foundation of swing, boogie, rock, and really all urban music of the 20th century has a jazz backbone of some sort. We want people to come with an open mind and really experience all it has to offer”.

Artists travel from around the country and even beyond to make the festival an international happening. Grammy winners, jazz veterans, up and comers, and local favorites all season the sonic gumbo. A dedicated and diverse crew of community minded volunteers set the table. The unpaid 50-person production crew headed by Sandy Willis is particularly impressive. They build 6 stages, handle sound, security, and other logistics, and work tirelessly behind the scenes to make it all happen.

Ticket options range from single event tickets ($10), to passes for the whole event ($65) with variable options in between. Ticketing and other useful information is available at the official website listed below. Shows can fill up quickly so arrive early for must see performances. All indoor shows are air-conditioned. For outdoor shows portable lawn chairs are recommended. Parking is free, and venues are within walking distance of each other. Food is available and vendors will include ethnic cuisines such as sushi and Chinese. Adding to the ambience is the festival’s proximity to Elkhart’s waterfalls, river walks, and beautiful parks. The Elkhart Jazz and Blues Festival is truly a one of a kind event that could only happen right here in Michiana.

And from the side bar:

Big Bands rise again:

Jazz big bands are alive and well at the Elkhart Jazz and Blues Festival. As in years past, the festival gives listeners a chance to see jazz big bands up close and personal. A quick look at the Festival’s web site shows several larger group ensembles and one particularly note worthy big band. Rob Parton’s Big Band with its huge sound and immaculate tightness promises to be one of the Festival’s highlights this year. Parton, well known on the Chicago jazz scene, is a performer/educator/bandleader who has spent more than 20 years keeping the big band tradition alive. The sound of his current ensemble is massive, with dynamic arrangements, intricate harmonic interplay, precise rhythms, and strikingly fluid group cohesion. This much talent and tightness tearing it up on a stage is a rare thing these days.

Bottom line economic realities, the prohibitive costs of putting large bands on the road, under funded and disappearing school band programs, and the ongoing challenges of rehearsing a large ensemble into a tight knit group have made it all but impossible for the big band to survive in today’s climate. When a big band beats the odds and thrives, it’s a sight and sound worth witnessing. Seeing such a band live is a timeless experience you won’t forget.